Restoring hoops order in the Triangle

Despite NC State's buzz last season, Duke and UNC still rule North Carolina

Updated: May 10, 2013, 3:14 PM ET
By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

Steve Shelton rattles off the names of talents from the past, area players making an impact now and those who will enter the scene in a few years.

He pauses at times as he recalls the name of another stellar kid from an upcoming recruiting class -- an athlete too young to vote or even drive.

It's difficult to track them all, but it's clear that the local pipeline is packed with studs.

"The 2016 class is loaded," said Shelton, program director and assistant coach for the North Carolina-based AAU program called the CP3 All-Stars. "I mean, loaded."

Shelton has coached some of the state's top prospects. Each year, his program's players (Rodney Purvis, Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston are former CP3 All-Stars) comprise a slice of the local talent pool that the triumvirate of squads in the zone known as the Triangle -- North Carolina State, North Carolina and Duke -- has direct access to each year.

[+] EnlargeMike Krzyzewski
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeMike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams are still the kings of the Triangle.

"Our state is a basketball state," said Jeff Capel, a Duke assistant and former player. "Everything revolves around basketball."

That fertile territory has contributed to the sustained success of the trio, which should continue in the 2013-14 season. That won't begin for another six months, but in ACC country, specifically the Triangle, it feels much closer.

Once again, Duke and North Carolina will be the cornerstones of the expanding powerhouse conference. NC State's immediate future is less certain, but the Wolfpack's recruiting class is intriguing. So it's a good time to be a fan of college basketball in the Triangle.

"It's really exciting," said Steve Wiseman, who covers Duke for the Durham Herald-Sun. "The ACC in the past few years hasn't been as strong as it had been in the previous three decades as far as teams getting into the tournament. Nobody has been in the Final Four from the ACC since 2010. I think people here are looking forward to next year."

And beyond.

All three schools attract players who hail from other regions. They don't necessarily need North Carolina players to win. But they usually have the edge on the state's best youngsters, many of whom grow up with a desire to be Tar Heels or Blue Devils.

"It's very tough [to lure kids to outside programs], especially if those programs have already offered," Shelton said. "If they've been offered [by Duke or North Carolina], you rarely see a kid leave the state of North Carolina."

North Carolina and Duke anchor one of the most intense rivalries in sports, but NC State has been elite in stretches, too. The Wolfpack have reached the NCAA tournament 13 times since Jim Valvano led the program to the national championship in 1983.

Basketball in the Triangle, per the norm, is healthy and nationally pertinent. Both Duke and North Carolina should be ranked in the top 10 of the preseason polls.

Next season, Duke will be led by Jabari Parker, one of the most NBA-ready freshmen in recent history. He'll join Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook in one of the nation's top backcourts.

"[Parker] impacts winning in so many different ways, I don't think you can put a measure on it," Capel said.

North Carolina lost Reggie Bullock to the NBA, but a strong recruiting class and the return of James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston should position the Tar Heels to compete for the ACC crown. With local big men Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks joining the program, McAdoo will move back to small forward a year after playing exclusively in the paint last season. And consensus No. 1 recruit Andrew Wiggins is still considering the Tar Heels.

NC State is the most unpredictable bunch within the Triangle. The program's top four scorers from last season are gone. Former McDonald's All American Rodney Purvis transferred to Connecticut. But Mark Gottfried signed a recruiting class that's ranked 14th by RecruitingNation.

The Wolfpack fell short of expectations after entering last season as the preseason favorite to win the ACC. Its recent surge under Gottfried, however, has enhanced the Triangle's status as the most unique concentration of talent in the country. Still, there are many unknowns for NC State entering next season.

"They didn't live up to things last year," Wiseman said. "They have the talent. Now it's a question of can he coach them up, develop a team so they can get better."

[+] EnlargeMark Gottfried
Bob Donnan/US PresswireMark Gottfried needs to restore the momentum that NC State lost last season.

Gottfried's backers believe he'll continue to build, even though they recognize that next season could be a rocky one if the Wolfpack are forced to rely on their freshmen.

"I'm not one to say they're building," said Quinton Jackson, head coach at Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh, N.C., and a former NC State point guard. "I'm under the mindset that they're regaining what we had in the past."

The present involves unprecedented change. Expansion will soon turn the conference into the nation's premier league. Pitt, Notre Dame and Syracuse will join the ACC next season. Louisville arrives in 2014.

"You're talking about maybe the best basketball conference in history," Capel said.

By next summer, Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Jamie Dixon, Mike Brey and Rick Pitino will all be ACC coaches.

And the new arrivals could use annual matchups against North Carolina, NC State and Duke as bait for local recruits.

"Now the Notre Dames, the Louisvilles can come into the state of the North Carolina and say [to parents], 'You will see your son play up close,' " Jackson said. "That gives them some leverage."

The overall outlook on the ACC's growth, however, is a positive one. What's good for the conference seems good for the Triangle, too. And even with new league threats, the trio's stronghold on regional talent probably will remain.

But what about Duke's head coach, the most powerful symbol of the Triangle's historical fortitude? What is Coach K's future? That's been a pressing question in the Triangle for years.

Coach K is still vibrant, but the legend eventually will leave the sideline. Roy Williams won't coach forever, either. Still, Coach K's tie to Duke basketball is unmatched. He is Duke basketball.

"Coach K is the only coach I've known at Duke," Capel said. "I don't remember Duke without Coach K being on the sideline. So I personally can't imagine anyone else walking out to the floor and walking on that sideline. But inevitably it's going to happen."

But when it does, Duke will adjust. North Carolina, too.

The strength of the basketball brands within the Triangle, however, will probably not change. As long as the area continues to produce talented players who dream of competing for North Carolina and Duke, and the two schools remain among the nation's elite teams, then basketball in the Triangle will stay strong.

NC State will continue to seek consistency.

Gottfried has to fix some holes this season, but he's already received commitments from Caleb Martin and Cody Martin, a pair of top-60 prospects in the 2014 class per RecruitingNation. The future could be bright for the Wolfpack, too.

"You have to look at the history of the schools, the fan base and the success," Jackson said. "lt is that success that makes the [Triangle] a tremendous place for basketball."